Ever wondered how you learned to write, read or ride a bicycle. Have you thought of the internal processes involved in learning these activities? To all those questions, here is a simple explanation: Brain.
Let us dive into understanding how the brain initiates learning and which brain processes are involved in the backend of our learning process. From our previous blog, we understood the basics of learning and its various types. In this blog, we will go deeper into its biological basis and process of learning.
We all know that our brain plays a major role in learning. Very recently, neuroscience researchers were able to see inside the brain and understand how learning occurs at a cellular level. Also, with the help of new technologies, especially in the field of neuroimaging, researchers have come up with the brain's inner workings and “see” what is going on inside the brain when people are learning. For example, we now know the brain regions responsible for different behaviors in children diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The brain has a network of pathways that contains billions of neurons that interact with each other. Let us now understand how neural networks work with respect to learning. As input, a neuron receives information(to be learned) through the sensory system, which moves from one neuron to another. To understand this, just imagine you (neuron) passing the ball (information) to your friends (other neurons). As one neuron passes information to another, they release neurotransmitters. The release of neurotransmitters excites other neurons to carry information from one to another as it forms a network.
The structure of a neuron
Communication between neurons occurs when the neurotransmitter is released from the axon from one neuron, travels across the synapse, and is taken by the dendrite on an adjacent neuron.
Through this information exchange between neurons, learning becomes effective as they form neural networks.
As we now know, through the continuous network of neurons, sensory information travels along the neural pathway. This information is stored in short-term memory, which stores sensory information for a very short period.
When stimuli from the environment are repeated, the brain's neural pathways take this information to the long-term memory by the process called potentiation or long-term potentiation. This strengthens the nerve synapses (the gaps between neurons). Here’s an example. Let’s say a neuron X ( information input) connects to neuron Y (answer which is stored in long-term memory). Neuron X fires; this causes a neuron Y to fire immediately after, leading to a successful outcome. Electrical and chemical mechanisms work in the backend of these neuronal firings.
For this process to take place, the synapse is important. A synapse is a tiny structure that gives space for an electrical and chemical action between neurons. These connections lead to successful learning. Further, when information is reinforced, it gets stored in memory even more strongly. This makes recall much more accessible. So the information which we want to learn is encoded by modifying the synaptic strength.
This image shows the way two neurons communicate by the discharge of the neurotransmitter from the axon, across the synapse, and into the dendrite of another neuron.
Research has established that learning and memory formation are made by strengthening and weakening the connection among the Brain cells( neurons). Strengthening of connection between neurons makes learning effective and strengthens memory. At the same time, weakening the connection between neurons makes learning less effective and weakens memory.
When two neurons frequently interact, they form a bond or a connection. This connection allows them to move information easily and correctly (Courtesy to strengthen the connection between neurons!) Further, this leads to complete learning and trouble-free recall of information as there is a repetitive revision of information.
In the same way, when two neurons interacted very rarely, the transmission was often incomplete, leading to either faulty learning or no memory at all. For example, consider your daily way to work; you need not focus too much because you have often gone through the same route. You have learned how to reach your workplace. This process is what is called habituation.
Our brain changes when we learn due to "neuroplasticity.” It suggests that our brains continually change and grow as we learn new things. This means once we learn something new, our brain makes new connections. Neuroscience and brain imaging technology have discovered how flexible the brain is and have refuted the thought that an individual’s mind is fixed or static. Instead, it is dynamic and responsive to experiences throughout their life. This is the science behind the “Brighter minds” program too! The program offers cognitive brain training to children to develop cognitive abilities.
How can anyone be involved in effective learning? Through practice and repetition: it is the most effective practice to learn new information. This is how newborns learn to use language or make sounds. It’s how athletes develop their skills, and this is how we quickly know a second language when moving to a foreign country.
From this blog, we have understood the neuroscience basis of learning, how our brain, with the help of neurons, facilitates learning. We are also familiar with information movement in the brain (from one neuron to another) and how repetition helps with information storage for a longer time. Understanding what is learning, how we learn, neuroscience of it, and its components allows us to gain knowledge. One can also apply this knowledge of the learning process for effective learning outcomes.
Autin, F. & Croizet, J. C. (2012). Improving working memory efficiency by reframing metacognitive interpretation of task difficulty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 610. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0027478
Cohen, P. A., Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. L. C. (1982). Educational outcomes of tutoring: A meta-analysis of findings. American Educational Research Journal, 19(2), 237-248. https://doi.org/10.3102%2F00028312019002237
Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 281-288. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2013.06.001
Li, P. & Jeong, H. (2020). The social brain of language: Grounding second language learning in social interaction. NPJ Science of Learning, 5(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-020-0068-7
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1539-6053.2009.01038.x
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1454. https://dx.doi.org/10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2017.01454